SODA SPRINGS — Three generations of Browns stay busy as bees working together for a family business that dates back to the 1960s, Brown’s Honey. Though a beekeeper’s life is demanding, there are perks to being self employed.
As Alan Brown describes a typical day, they head to the region’s most beautiful places — mountain meadows laden with wildflowers, or perhaps lush fields of alfalfa or clover. They bring sack lunches and seek the shade of a mature tree for a picnic. Before returning to their labors, they take a 15-minute nap, listening to the tranquil humming of their hives.
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, Dalan Brown, 22, and other company workers dressed in white, protective suits unloaded stacks of multi-colored hive boxes at the base of a snow-capped mountain along Marsh Creek Road in McCammon. Engulfed by a cloud of bees, they spread smoke — a tactic used to spur bees into collecting pollen, which also makes them more docile.
The Soda Springs-based honey company maintains 5,000 hives on properties throughout Pocatello, Downey, Chesterfield, Grace, Montpelier, St. Charles and Richmond, Utah. They pay their rent in honey.
Alan Brown’s maternal grandfather used to run bees in Shelley, before he moved to Missoula, Mont. Grandpa’s beekeeping made a lasting impression on Alan Brown’s father, William Brown, a former maintenance mechanic for Kerr-McGee who started raising bees as a hobby.
“They’re just fun to watch and fun to work with — if you don’t mind working,” William said of the bees that now yield a sufficient supply of liquid gold to support his family.
When he acquired enough hives, William went into beekeeping full time, adding Alan to the workforce when he turned 11 or 12.
About half of their income comes from leasing bees to the proprietors of California almond orchards. In the olden days, they loaded and unloaded the bee boxes by hand for their trips to California. In 1972, they acquired a semi and forklift to ease their burden. Today, they have three trucks and two forklifts.
Like his father before him, Alan can rest assured the business will be in good hands into the future. His sons Hyrum, 13, and Aaron, 11, both go out in the field and intend to continue on the family legacy.
“I see my boy that’s 13. He’s learned how to work, and he’s really a lot more responsible than his friends that are the same age,” Alan said. “We can give him assignments and tell him to go do stuff, and he’ll go to work in the bees and accomplish it. I think it’s taught him a lot about growing up and being responsible.”
To supplement the labor force, they hire a crew of four outside workers.
Alan and his wife Jeannie also have four girls, ages 17, 15, 8 and 6. They haven’t gotten nearly as involved in the family business but sometimes help paint boxes or extract honey.
They sell their sweet product to the Sue Bee Honey, a co-op of 400 producers from throughout the world that lays claim to being the world’s largest honey packer. They don’t know where their honey ends up after they ship away the barrels.
The bees spend winters in California. They’re sent to the Golden State’s almond orchards just before Thanksgiving and return to Idaho each March.
“They wouldn’t get any nuts without bees on the almonds because the pollen is too heavy to float in the air,” Alan said.
Honey is harvested in July and August. Alan takes about half of the honey his bees produce on average, careful to leave the bees a sufficient amount for their own survival. During certain rainy months, the bees can’t produce enough honey to sustain themselves, so the Browns must supplement their food supply.
A downside to the profession during the past decade has been coping with a mysterious problem that’s affected hives throughout the world, known as colony collapse disorder. For reasons that still aren’t entirely understood, worker bees can abruptly disappear from their colonies.
When the disorder first surfaced, the Brown’s lost about a third of their bees each year. Alan believes the disorder stems from bee mites and the viruses they can bring.
“Last year, we were treating and doctoring and trying to keep on top of it, and we lost about 10 percent,” Brown said, adding he used organic acids and oils to protect his bees.
Their friends in the industry from Blackfoot, Shelley and Burley have also coped with colony collapse.
The Browns raise their own bee colonies, including some of their queens. Breeding new hives is part of the allure of the job to Alan. He can also empathize with their work ethic.
“I like to grow them from starting them as little nukes in the spring and put a new queen in there and watch her go into that group of bees and start growing her brood. You put another box on and they grow into that,” Alan said. “I just like the way they work. They gather the pollen off flowers and bring it home.”